Working styles, HR and the circus - What I've learned from my two careers

Nowadays, Laura Kelly is Senior HR Business Partner at Arkk Solutions across London and Belfast. But she started her working life as a circus performer, touring the world with her gasp-inducing aerial acrobatics. What’s the connection?

Written by Charlie Swift
Published 31 January 2020
Working styles, HR and the circus - What I've learned from my two careers

"Circus taught me that I could master tough new skills," said Laura. "The circus gave me autonomy over which skills I chose to develop, and it brought me recognition for those achievements – while providing a powerful experience for the audience.

"It was Pink’s AMP Framework in action – and I was so happy! Now, I can help others to feel just as passionate about their work, using the same principles." (You can find out more about Laura’s time in the circus in her blog, "From Circus Performer to HR Professional!")

Goodbye to the circus

Laura-Kelly-blog-image-310120-(1).pngSo how did Laura make the transition from one career to the next?

"It finally came time to leave the circus – I was getting older," she admitted. "And I wanted a steady income, and something that challenged me mentally more. But it meant starting again at the bottom.

"I spotted a job advert from a 14-strong start-up called Pact Coffee. They were after someone to sort out all their internal paperwork, and that someone turned out to be me. On day one, I was given a pile of credit card receipts to work through, so I bought my first ledger!"

With freedom to work as she saw fit, but little experience working alongside other business professionals, Laura admits to making a lot of early decisions based on quick research and "gut feel".

She said, "There were no formal systems or processes, no contracts in place, and the business was growing fast. My first priorities were to get us compliant, and to help manage an office relocation. Gradually, I developed a proper employee life cycle, one stage at a time, led by the most urgent need as it arose.

"For example, if we needed a new member of staff, we had to advertise for them, select them, onboard them, pay them. If someone asked for a pay raise, we needed external and internal benchmarking data, agreed performance measures, and evidence of how they’d performed against them, and so on.

Bridging the gaps

"Between my first and second anniversary in the role, we gained a finance team and office manager. By three years in, the company had grown to 80 employees. And when you work with talented, ambitious people in a fast-paced environment, you quickly discover that they need to grow just as fast. So, L&D became my responsibility too".

One of the dangers of formalizing processes is that they can slow everything down. How did Laura avoid tangling everyone up in bureaucracy?

She said: "Small and medium-sized businesses need to be ruthless about where they invest. So we kept everything as simple as possible, focused on impact and adding value, and avoided too much top-down decision making.

"This was particularly true for goal setting and performance, where we adopted OKRs. These involve sharing data with employees and inviting them to suggest how objectives can be achieved and what their part in bridging the gaps will be."

Common misconceptions about management

But it was not all plain sailing, as Laura revealed, "I identified two issues that grew as the company did. First, people just a few months into a role were looking for career progression, by which they meant promotion, by which they meant becoming a manager.

"And second, I was getting increasing requests for one-on-ones with employees, who wanted to complain about their managers. And this growing dissatisfaction was reflected in falling engagement survey results."

It turned out that the two issues were linked: there was a widespread misunderstanding of what people management entails. It was assumed to be something that anyone was capable of, and that it could be added to full-time technical roles with no impact on capacity or performance.

Laura added, "We learned the hard way – never to give people management responsibility without specific training and support. And we raised awareness that it’s a skill in itself. Fortunately, once people have that intro, they understand that too for themselves."

Bad situation? You own it

However, Laura didn’t refuse those one-on-ones. Instead, she used them to build bridges and to help people develop, whether they were managers or team members.

She said, "I was happy to have people offload to me, and to ease the time and emotional burden for managers. I also preferred that they complain to me, not to friends, family or on social media! And it was a great way to gain insight into what exactly was going on, what wasn’t working and why.

"But I wouldn’t just fix it for them. I took care to strengthen the employee-manager relationship, not to undermine it. I’d help them to help take ownership of the situation (and the business’s success) by brokering a kind of deal. Each party agreeing what they would do, and what they’d achieve together".

When Laura eventually moved on to her current position at Arkk Solutions, a fast growth SaaS innovator in the Finance sector,  she was able to apply this experience from the off, working this year to implementing a formal management and leadership program in house.

The aim is taking two or three people each year and giving them extra responsibilities that enable learning and practicing managerial skills, in a relatively safe way.

Bad managers drive away talent

"They’ll head up social events", Laura explained, "internal communications, CSR, and more. They'll be supported with coaching, and have access to the full range of Mind Tools resources, to use individually and with their teams."

So will it be worth the investment? Categorically said Laura, "Remember that the number one reason that people leave their job is their manager! If you can improve the quality of managing, your retention improves, your business bottom line improves. And people are happier, too".

This is where Laura’s current passion lies. She said: "I still like generalist HR work. But performance and retention – talent management – are of most value to businesses and to the people within them. That’s where I see my future.

"I’m not afraid of change. In fact, I’m very, very comfortable with it! My parents put very little in the way of expectations on me or my siblings, their priority was that we were happy in whatever we did. And I think that’s what enabled me to be so open to trying new things. It’s what I try to bring to work every day and to help those around me to feel, too".

Does she have one piece of advice that would help people navigate their careers well, especially if they’re contemplating a change of direction and "leaving the circus?"

Save time, blame yourself

Actually, not so much people but the places that produce them. Laura said, "I wish schools, colleges and corporate L&D departments would help people to understand their working styles, and how important they are.

"That they would work to avoid pigeonholing people into a role or job title. Asking ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ or ‘Where do you see yourself in x years’ time?’ is too restrictive.

"You can apply a working style to a range of titles that might seem unrelated. For example, if you’re great at processes and organizing, maybe you could work in nursing, or equally in manufacturing or I.T. Any job-specific technical knowledge and skills sit on top of the personality and traits.

"And we can all apply this to ourselves – it's never too late. Ask yourself what are you good at, what feels good, what gives you pleasure and satisfaction?"

She sums up, "I’m definitely a glass half full person. I can’t see the point of being angry or bitter about work. Blaming other people for your problems is a waste of time and energy. And it’s a myth that happiness only comes after you get your dream career. In fact, for me it goes the other way around – be happy and you’ll find your autonomy, mastery and purpose!"

About the author

Charlie Swift

Charlie Swift

Managing Editor
Charlie has 25 years of editorial experience in the science, education, non-profit, and L&D sectors. He's been part of Mind Tools' in-house Content team since 2015, and is responsible for researching and planning new resources. He collaborates daily with internal and external experts to ensure the highest standards and to gain the best insights.

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